Dusty really is testament to why someone such as myself loves working with complicated behaviours such as aggression in dogs.
I received a phone call after being referred by a colleague of mine, it was in regards to a seriously aggressive female Collie called Dusty. She was a 3 year old rescue whose owner was unable to walk her as she was so aggressive toward all other dogs. They had tried other trainers to no avail, and I was her last resort.
When I fist met Dusty she was not overly confident. She had no issues with people. Dogs however were a very different matter.
I took Dusty to a local dog park to see for myself what the issue was and what was really going on in Dusty's mind. On a scale of 1 - 10 in aggression toward other dogs, Dusty most definitely was a 10! She meant business and was absolutely determined to remove the unpleasant stimuli that caused her stress - all other dogs.
It was obvious to me that Dusty's behaviour was fear related. She was clearly going on the attack before they attacked her - or so that's what she thought. A dog that fears something will have one of many reactions, avoidance is most common, but when that is not possible then attack is the next option, and some dogs will feel they have to attack before being attacked.
Fear aggression is a complicated topic, as is all canine aggression. It can manifest in many ways. For example, a puppy of 6 months goes to the park and bounds up to an older dog, the older dog turns and gives the puppy a nasty bite - that puppy could then become fearful of all new dogs. This behaviour is a common occurrence with puppies, they're young and often fail to read the signals of older, less tolerant dogs. The vast majority of puppies will brush themselves off and carry on, but then there are the ones who are a little more sensitive and have the potential to become fearful of that particular experience.
Snapping, growling and lunging are the next best options for a dog that is fearful, this works well in making the 'scary thing' go away, but of course this is not acceptable. This behaviour can escalate to severe aggression towards other dogs and even humans if not correctly managed.
Dusty would lunge and attempt to attack dogs that were close to her, this changed quickly once she became familiar with them. When she tried to attack another dog, I would correct her with a firm 'No!' and sit her down so the other dogs could sniff her, whilst keeping her nose towards me. Once she realised that I was taking the stress out of her control, she completely relaxed and allowed the sniffing to continue. We practised this multiple times with multiple dogs and puppies.
There were many triggers for Dusty during the first few weeks, small dogs were a big trigger for Dusty, then it was dogs from a distance, and then it was puppies. It took Dusty several weeks to realise that other dogs were not there to cause her harm.
The major break through came when her owner allowed me to work with her for two weeks solid. I had Dusty for one hour sessions five days a week. During this time Dusty went from a highly aggressive dog that could not be fully trusted without a muzzle, to a dog that was relaxed and completely comfortable in the company of all other dogs. I exposed her to multiple dogs and situations and even puppies. As the days went on, I saw that she was not reacting to anything, nothing was a concern for her, all she wanted to do was to chase the ball that I had conditioned her to focus on.
Rusty now runs in large groups of dogs at the dog park and behaves like a typical dog at the park. We get so many comments from fellow park goers, and dog walkers who knew her from her highly reactive muzzle days to today, no one can believe she's the same dog. Rusty reminds me of why I love this job and how it's so important to understand dogs and what they do and why. Patience, structure, discipline and trust are key to helping these types of unwanted behaviours.